Outgoing U.S. President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday escalating his country's so-called "tech war" with China. The decree instructs the Commerce Department to identify which transactions Americans should be prohibited from conducting with eight Chinese apps, particularly payment-processing ones such as Alipay and WeChat Pay, within 45 days. The document claims that Chinese authorities can track federal employees and contractors and build detailed dossiers about them. Reuters cited an unnamed U.S. official who said that they plan to accomplish this task by the time Trump is supposed to leave office on January 20.
These espionage-related accusations aren't anything new. They echo earlier ones made by the Trump Administration over the past few years concerning Chinese tech giant Huawei and the country's popular TikTok video sharing app. The outgoing American leader expanded his country's prior anti-Chinese containment efforts and concomitant desire to provoke a new Cold War into the tech sphere as part of his larger trade war against China. His team has since propagated unsubstantiated allegations purporting that practically everything of digital significance related to China is part of a global spy conspiracy to surveil all of their users.
This information warfare narrative, which has never been backed up by any evidence, aims to distract the targeted audience from the U.S.'s own digital surveillance activities across the world carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other members of its intelligence community. It's also meant to erode international confidence in the integrity of Chinese tech products in the hope that other governments, companies, and average users will choose to rely on American ones instead under the false assumption that they're safer, thus facilitating the U.S.' intelligence collection efforts.
With this strategic context in mind, Trump's latest anti-Chinese tech moves are very serious in terms of their symbolism, but they lack much in terms of substance since the targeted companies don't have many American users anyhow. The outgoing leader's most immediate intention therefore doesn't seem to have anything to do with so-called "security" concerns, but all about perception management and political manipulation. He wants to reinforce his administration's narrative that such digital products are a threat to privacy, democracy, and security, but he also wants to put additional pressure on President-elect Joe Biden.
Related to the first motivation, the only real impact that this move will have is that it attracts a lot of international media coverage, but it'll likely stop being reported upon in the next day or two considering how fast the news cycle moves nowadays. Concerning the second, most observers agree that Trump is trying to "box in" Biden by forcing him to continue the anti-Chinese policies that he's inheriting from his predecessor. In this specific sense, Trump wants to sever almost all digital connections of economic significance between the U.S. and China, thus making it more difficult for his successor to broker a rapprochement of ties between them.
It's therefore a pretty petty move if one really takes the time to think about it. Trump has already dealt tremendous damage to the Chinese-American relationship in all respects so he didn't need to do something else that's almost entirely superficial in order to solidify his legacy of anti-Chinese hostility. After all, Biden can always revoke this latest executive order upon entering office, though the optics might be uncomfortable for him since it could fuel Republican claims that he's "soft" on China. Therefore, he might only do so as part of a more comprehensive series of understandings with China since this move in and of itself is mostly symbolic.
Trump might have thought that this latest anti-Chinese tech move would be the proverbial "icing on the cake" to show just how serious he is about "standing up" to China, but it really just makes him look petty and arguably even a tad pathetic. His decree won't have much of a practical impact on anything and is mostly for symbolism's sake. It makes the outgoing leader look desperate and insecure, implying that he's unsure whether his legacy would be remembered unless he took that additional move. Trump doesn't seem to be thinking straight, but he'll have enough time to rest his mind once he leaves office in two weeks' time.